Friday, August 16, 2013

Back to School... Excelling through Effort!

As our school year begins, most of us start thinking about what we would like our children to accomplish over the course of the year. Our first thought usually turns to hoping that our child gets a good teacher. Having a great teacher is very important, but helping our child to understand that really learning something is more about effort than natural ability can be much more important.
How children become really great at something has always been of interest to me. How do those who become outstanding students, leaders, athletes, musicians and thinkers do it?
  • Do they posses innate talents and skills that happen to have been given to them by a Supreme Being?
  • Or, is it their DNA make up based on genetics that gives them the ability to surpass others?
  • When many people become good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, why do others become excel and become excellent at what they do?
Geoff Colvin, in his book, Talent is Overrated, convincingly argues that in general, it’s not predetermined innate gifts or DNA, or intelligence that creates world-class performers.

Colvin points out that Anders Ericsson and his associates did a study that concluded “the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.” (For those of you familiar with our fourth grade curriculum and it's use of Carole Dweck’s work with Mindsets, this will sound very familiar.)

Most people attribute great success to talent and God given ability. Colvin’s research shows that talent advocates have a hard time showing that natural ability is important in attaining great performances. 

The factor that is most important is what researchers call deliberate practice.  It’s hard and it’s uncomfortable. Which brings us to the question, “How many times a day, a week, a month… do we practice what’s hard and uncomfortable in our work in order to excel?” In my experience, we usually stay within our comfort zone most of the day, which explains why repeating our daily experience doesn’t always lead to better performance.

A study of accomplished musicians shows that their skill is a function of how much time they practice. Researchers have found that intensive training usually precedes precocious achievement.
Colvin points out that Mozart and Tiger Woods were both pushed by domineering parents who were determined to make their children special, and that successful business men such as Henry Ford, Jack Welch and Warren Buffet showed little or no promise as youngsters. So, what did propel them to the top of their professions?

Research shows that correlations between IQ and achievement are not strong and usually there have correlation at all.

What is more frequently looked for in hiring by major corporations are such factors as focus, clear thinking, imagination and confidence along with the ability to execute, be decisive and bring energy and energize others.

Great performance does not appear to be driven by experience or inborn abilities such as intelligence or memory.

So, what does Drive Great Performance?

Hard work!  Whether in sports or music, hard work trumps all. Jerry Rice was probably the best wide receiver ever in the NFL. He was also acknowledged as one of the hardest workers who focused his workouts on the skills he would need in games.

Studies of musicians have shown that solo practice is the most important factor in improving their performance, along with getting enough sleep and being fresh when they practiced.

Studies also showed that those who practice in a deliberate manner can keep getting better after twenty years or more.  (Those of you who have read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell will be familiar with the theory that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to master a skill at a high level.)

Deliberate practice requires the identifying of particular areas that need to be improved. In most cases, engaging an expert in the field is the best way to improve. And, in order to improve, we need to:
  • Work on the skills and abilities that are just out of reach (Learning Zone) rather than those we’ve already mastered (Comfort Zone) or those that are too hard (Panic Zone). High repetition of the correct skill leads to the most improvement.

Deliberate Practice requires doing something that takes great focus and concentration and is not a lot of fun. Regular feedback is critical and great performers never allow themselves to reach the automatic, arrested-development stage.

Athletes review their performances on video, musicians listen to their work, and all utilize feedback from teachers, coaches and experts to improve. And, the essence of their practice is constantly trying to do things that they are not comfortable doing. It’s all about pushing ourselves just beyond what we can do.

In addition to deliberate practice, continuing to build a deep knowledge base is critical. As we learn to anticipate what is coming next, based on what we are seeing or hearing, we build a deep domain of knowledge.

Colvin cites facts and research that shows that the Eureka moment is a myth. The greatest innovators spent years in intensive preparation before making creative breakthroughs. Years of deliberate practice are needed, along with opportunities to innovate and try new things.

As top performers age, they can continue their level of performance if they continue focused, designed practice. Our brains are perfectly able to add new neurons well into old age and the brain’s plasticity doesn’t stop with age. Performance deterioration isn’t an inexorable process, it’s a choice.

Before – During – After
  • Before:          Set goals that are attainable in the near future and make a plan. Believe that you can do it.
  • During:          FOCUS. Don’t get distracted. Don’t give up!
  • After:             Get feedback. Try to compare your current performance with previous efforts. Take responsibility for your actions. Don’t blame outside factors. Decide how you are going to adapt your actions the next time you do your work.
Some Other Points from the Book
  • The motivation to grow, develop and improve must become intrinsic. As much of a grind as deliberate practice is, it appears to fulfill an intrinsic drive. Extrinsic rewards can defeat creativity unless they reinforce intrinsic drives.
  • Students who learn faster are rewarded by the results of their efforts. 
  • Passion is something that is developed and may require a push from parents and teachers.
  • Early recognition by teachers and parents can cause children to invest in improving performance.
  • It’s vital that we help children (and ourselves) to understand that their efforts will help them to achieve their goals.
In Summary
So, when our children come home complaining that their school work is hard, first determine if they are feeling the effects of being in a Panic Zone or the discomfort of being in a Learning Zone.  If it's the latter, help them to understand that learning is not easy, it's hard work. And, that school is about hard work, not play and always having a good time.
Helping our children in this way will promote their learning, support them in knowing that success comes from hard work, not natural ability or intelligence, and that the world and success are always open to them if they are willing to work at it.

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